Brain images from patients with schizophrenia will be shared in first United States imaging network

La Jolla 29 October 2002Brain images from hundreds of people with schizophrenia at ten research sites in the United States will be shared in a first-of-its-kind research project funded with $10,9 million from the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a branch of the National Institutes of Health. The project will create an extensive and unique database of brain information which is expected to expand understanding of disabling brain illnesses such as schizophrenia, and speed the development of new treatments.


The federal grant was awarded to the joint General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) of the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) and the University of California in Irvine (UC Irvine). The GCRC will co-ordinate the nationwide effort to link and share vast amounts of computerised data from brain images of people who have schizophrenia. In addition, researchers participating in the project will create standardised, powerful discovery tools for future brain studies in large populations.

Although brain imaging technology has generated remarkable progress in understanding how mental and neurological diseases develop, it has been nearly impossible for one laboratory to share and compare findings with other labs. A lack of co-ordinated networks for sharing data, plus limitations in compatible computer hardware, software and imaging equipment, have isolated scientists, barring them from collaborative efforts that could provide the large database of brain images needed for a comprehensive look at brain dysfunction.

The newly funded project will utilise a nationally linked, high-speed computer network established by the Biomedical Informatics Research Network (BIRN), a consortium of United States universities that received their initial funding from the NCRR in 2001. During the past year, BIRN has utilised the new Internet 2 network and broadband networking technologies to link several sites in the United States. With this new technology, scientists will distribute and share brain imaging data, including high-resolution digital magnetic resonance images (MRI) of brain structure and function, advanced 3D microscope images, and related genomic, structural and gene expression data.

Steven G. Potkin, M.D., UCI professor of psychiatry, will lead the new three-year investigation. "This grant allows a diverse group of researchers across the country to develop new methods to combine unique brain imaging data obtained at different centres", Dr. Potkin stated. "This grant will find new ways to conduct very large imaging experiments and ease the exchange of data among researchers, not just in schizophrenia but eventually in a whole range of brain disorders and other diseases."

Sites and investigators participating in the new study are the University of California in Irvine (UCI) led by Dr. Potkin, the University of California in San Diego (UCSD) led by Gregory Brown, the University of California in Los Angels (UCLA) led by Arthur Toga, Stanford University led by Gary Glover, University of New Mexico led by John Lauriello, University of Minnesota led by Kelvin Lim, Massachusetts General Hospital led by Bruce Rosen, with Brigham and Women's Hospital led by Ron Kikinis, Duke University led by Gregory McCarthy, University of North Carolina led by Jeffrey Lieberman, and University of Iowa led by Daniel O'Leary.

The massive FIRST BIRN project will consist of two stages:

  1. Researchers at UC Irvine and UCSD will create a centralised database that is easily accessed by researchers, regardless of their physical location or type of laboratory technology. Led by Mark Ellisman, UCSD professor of neurosciences and director of the BIRN co-ordinating centre, the researchers will examine the major sources of variation in brain imaging studies, including the instruments used, calibration of equipment and data analysis, to find avenues for large-scale experiments and to maximise the insight imaging studies can provide.
  2. UCI's Dr. Potkin will lead ten centres conducting clinical trials using MRI scanners, applying the technology developed in the project to study healthy persons and patients with schizophrenia. The researchers will compare the anatomic and brain changes that occur in this disease, and detail how brain functions change as the disease progresses. They also will compare what happens in the brain before and after medication.

The brain images will be standardised and shared among the research centres around the country. Each centre will conduct its own unique studies and share them through the BIRN technology. "Any of the project's researchers should then be able to store MRI images, share clinical findings, and compare behavioural data", stated UCSD's Professor Ellisman. "Using advances in information engineering and broadband networking on the causes and effects of treatment of schizophrenia, we believe we will accelerate progress in understanding how a wide range of diseases are caused and how they can be treated."

The BIRN research effort will be affiliated with the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Cal-(IT)2) to develop large-scale medical science advances. Cal-(IT)2 researchers at UC Irvine and UCSD and the data and knowledge engineering team at UCSD's San Diego Supercomputer Center will use the brain imaging project as a model around which to develop new information technologies that will allow larger-scale biomedical studies not only in brain imaging research but in medical and scientific research in general.

Cal-(IT)2 is one of four institutes in the California Institutes for Science and Innovation initiative, which is funded by the state to promote innovation as a key to economic development on the model of Silicon Valley. The collaborative Cal-(IT)2 effort between UCSD and UCI is designed to extend the Internet throughout the physical world with infrastructure development and prototyping driven by applications needs in environmental science, civil infrastructure, intelligent transportation, biomedical research, and new media arts.

With more than $10 million in funding in 2002, the UCSD General Clinical Research Center (GCRC) is one of the highest funded General Clinical Research Centers in the United States. The funding includes programmes at UCSD and at UCI, which is a satellite centre of UCSD. The Division of Clinical Research at the NCRR funds a network of more than 80 GCRCs, distributed across the United States and located mostly at academic medical centres and teaching hospitals.

The GCRC Programme was authorised by Congress in 1959 to provide clinical investigators specialised environments with the infrastructure necessary to conduct sophisticated patient-oriented research. More than 40 years later, these research settings have enabled countless investigations of human diseases.

Leslie Versweyveld

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